Standing on the shoulders of Summerhill School

From the beginning of my work with Summerhill, initially as a fulltime science teacher, I worked with the children to share their experiences with other schools, teachers and universities.

Michael Newman
4 March 2017


Summerhill School community meeting in the debating chamber of London’s City Hall in front of an invited audience of educationalists and children from three schools.

" Then there is a book by Robert Peal called Progressively Worse: the Burden of Bad Ideas in Education which the Daily Mail enjoyed publicising. I re-read that article again this morning, and it is very interesting, it talks about his beginning in a Birmingham comprehensive, how it was chaos and nobody wanted to learn and the teachers were unable to control the class, and he then said, where do we find the root of this problem?

Now, I could cite many roots of a problem in a Birmingham comprehensive: inequality, teachers overloaded, lack of resources, and so on. He says no, you need to go back to A. S. Neill and Summerhill...   "

Melissa Benn – "Is politics and policy too toxic for Dewey?", 2016.

For the past 22 years I have worked at Summerhill School, with a break of five years working with over 30 primary schools and 10 secondary schools in East London on active citizenship projects.  Summerhill is the oldest school in the world based on children’s rights and participation in learning and community living.

From the beginning of my work with Summerhill, initially as a fulltime science teacher, I worked with the children to share their experiences with other schools, teachers and universities. These included sharing Summerhill as a model of practice with state schools, teachers and children.

Together with the Summerhill children and staff, we ran the first Dover District School Council Conferences with some twelve secondary schools sending delegates; the children ran a workshop in Belgium on European democratic citizenship; and our children ran one workshop at the first SchoolCouncilUK conference, and another at the second national conference of StudentVoice.

The whole school organised a community meeting in the Jubilee Room of the House of Commons with invited NGOs, educationalists and MPs, and another one at London’s City Hall in front of educationalists and three state secondary schools. The staff and children have worked with schools in Tower Hamlets over a period of ten years, running workshops at schools, at the Town Hall, and hosting teachers and children who visit Summerhill. We hosted six local primary schools, with the local community museum, re-enacting a tea party of Suffragists, and celebrating the centenary of their march to London, to explore girls’ rights in schools. Over five years, children and myself have run workshops and presentations, in Emilia Romagna, Italy, with 150 local teachers, with state schools, universities, theatres, co-operatives, alternative schools and conferences.


The chair of the Summerhill School meeting at London’s City Hall:part of a day celebrating co-operative schools organised by Summerhill.

Children’s rights

In all this activity, the issue of children’s rights in schools has emerged as the foundation stone of participation between teachers and children. Projects within schools, varying from Fairtrade, conflict resolution and justice, enterprise, student voice, play, creativity, co-operation all set the children’s work within a historical, cultural context, empowering them with successful examples of the past, and heroes struggling for the rights of the child.

Since 2015, the community has taken centre ground as the champion of children’s rights, paying tribute to the community of New Ideals in Education first formed a century before. In 1914 at East Runton, Norfolk, a conference of some 250 teachers, professors, inspectors, and politicians met to discuss Montessori. The builders of this community were Rev. Bertram Hawker – founder of the first Montessori school in England, and leader of the nursery school movement in Australia and the international University Movement; Earl Lytton, who pushed through the House of Lords the 1918 Education Continuation Act; Edmond Holmes, the previous Chief Inspector of Schools and author of a government-commissioned report on Montessori; Lillian de Lisa, leader of the nursery school movement in England; Norman MacMunn, a teacher who introduced democracy and participative learning into his classroom, and published the book ‘Pathway to Freedom’ (1914) on the results; Homer Lane, the director of a democratically run children’s residential farm for juvenile offenders called The Little Commonwealth; and Percy Nunn, who would become the first Director of the Institute of Education.


Summerhill School community meeting in the Jubilee Room of the House of Commons.This group, at their first conference, agreed to organise an annual event, whose values would be ‘liberating the child in the classroom’. They published a comprehensive report, with an historical introduction, explaining the origins of these events and their values, alongside full texts of the presentations. There is also a list of the delegates, with their jobs and towns of origin. In later years this was supplemented by published pamphlets promoting case studies and sent free to schools and teachers, and a quarterly magazine (from 1924), with considerable international input. From the third conference there were added ‘experimental days’, which shared newly-discovered practice based on the aim of ‘liberating the child’.

This community united innovators and practitioners, fostered international communities imitating its practice, and the New Education [International] Fellowship went on to support the foundation of the International Bureau of Education and UNESCO. This community of practitioners influenced schools throughout the world. In England they created the child-centred primary school based on learning by doing, through nature, play, creativity, self-expression, co-operation and group work, alongside student voice, research and project work.

Earl Lytton in a review published in 1924 of the implementation of the 1918 Continuation Act, created by another member of the Ideals group, H.A.L.Fisher, England’s Director of Education, saw the school as a cultural, historical museum curated by children, with the support of teachers.

Summerhill, survivor school

I work with Summerhill as a surviving school of this community. Its founder wrote an autobiographical account, ‘A Dominie’s Log’, of being a state school headteacher in 1914-15 at Gretna Green, and thinking through the questions asked by this community and putting into practice its values of play, nature learning, choice, happiness and freedom.

The French school inspector and educationalist Roger Cousinet once criticised those who have deployed the successful methods developed by the New Educationalists but without the foundation or aim of liberating the child. Our methods, areas of practice, curriculum subjects are never divorced from the rights of the child. Simple stories of these teachers, their schools, children and their community are being put into workshops and are being shared online. This gives our children and their teachers a proud history, a history of this movement that is so important to the identity of the community itself.


Four Summerhill students with Michael Newman lobbying Katarina Tomasevski, the first United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education, with Gerison Lansdown, founder director of the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE).As a part of this historic tradition and community Summerhill has campaigned for its values nationally and internationally: a group went as NGO delegates to the UN Special Session on Children’s Rights in New York, marching through the streets, leafletting delegates, reading poetry on children and war, and campaigning for children’s rights against religious indoctrination and violence; another group went to UNESCO’s Conference of Education Ministers ‘Learning to Live Together’ in Geneva, a student giving one of the concluding speeches to the assembled politicians; our students have helped run a national children’s NGO promoting rights; they also lobbied the Select Committee on Education and the Chief Inspector of Schools, for all school children to have the rights they have, including the unique inspection process it won in a national court case in 2000.

The battle for children’s rights

The danger to children’s rights, as with all human groups, are those in power. Throughout the struggle for human rights there have been two sides struggling on behalf of the powerless. One side, sometimes seen as scientific, has asked what can we do to help the group? What is the group capable of and how can we support these capabilities. Their concern is that we should not abandon them to a freedom that they could not understand, that would expect too much from them, that would force them into taking decisions and having responsibilities that they cannot deal with. In a male world this could be called paternalism. Rights, within this group, are defined by limitations sometimes called responsibilities. Rights are mainly protective, as formulated by democratic liberals, who believe in an equality of mankind, but one that must take into account the limitations imposed by difference.


Summerhill student holds the microphone, facilitating the first Dover Secondary Schools student conference, with twelve local schools.We must not confuse the paternalistic protection of children, or doing things in the interest of the child, with a culture of children’s rights. Children’s participation as a motivator and as training for future responsibilities is a powerful tool within a non-rights culture. These are the building bricks of a society whose culture is the expression, defence and development of our humanity. Day by day, we build ourselves and our knowledge, and awareness of the world around us, as active members of our communities, helping to make them just and equal and fun. The human is the storyteller, is the artist, is the researcher into their worlds. This was the inspiration behind the New Ideals Community, who strove for a world without war, without hatred and ignorance; a society based on justice, equality and rights.

To me human culture is a celebration of the human, and the human is founded on the rights of the child.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData